Ah, Arcola. I was back over there on Monday night to see their new production of Mustapha Matura’s Meetings, a play set in 1980s Trinidad.
It’s an intriguing but rather stilted play about a well-off, career-minded married couple who employ a cook so that the husband can reacquaint himself with the foods of his childhood. The play isn’t just about food, of course, it’s also about how economic prosperity can make people feel cut off from a more simple, tradition-driven past. But, as I’m sure the themes will be discussed more eloquently elsewhere, I, perhaps predictably, am going to focus on the food.
Designer James Humphrey has installed a working (Ikea) kitchen in the Arcola’s smaller studio space, complete with oven, sink and dishwasher – but it’s not just any kitchen, it’s a magic kitchen. Oh, yes. When Elsa, the young girl employed by the couple as cook, starts to prepare her meals, she opens up pots and pans to reveal lots of pre-chopped food. Actually I don’t really think this is meant to signify anything mystical, rather it is a time-saving device on the part of the director. Unfortunately, having all this food secreted around the set, was rather distracting – I kept thinking, how come this couple never noticed they had bread rolls in their dishwasher before?
Also the (teeny, tiny) portions that Elsa puts on the plates – and that actor Nicholai La Barrie duly eats – never resemble the tempting dishes they’re supposed to be. So she announces the fact she’s made something like ‘hearty, warming Trinidadian sausage and bean stew’ and then serves up a small puddle of watery, tomato-y liquid. I guess this is because it would be difficult to whip up said stew on set, even with most of the ingredients hidden in saucepans beforehand, but this disparity seems like a crucial flaw in a production that revolves around the evocative power of food. It just seems like such a shame; here we have a play – that, at least, superficially – is about food and a working kitchen - and all the food we see looks so miserable, so uninspiring. And this just a week after I saw ordinary (egg on toast, pasta) but at least edible looking fare, cooked up on stage at Soho Theatre in Pure Gold.
In addition to Elsa’s dubious dishes, the couple in Meetings also get through numerous slices of the most anaemic looking toast I’ve ever seen, a carton of chicken and chips, and bottle after bottle of radioactive-hued Caribbean soda (I think there may have been some sort of sponsorship thing going on here, as there was with Ikea for the kitchen). Not that they actually eat all of this, the actors pick and nibble, making yummy noises where necessary, before scraping most of it into the bin. Which could be taken as a comment on the wasteful habits of the wealthy, though I suspect it has more to do with actors not wanting to gain half a stone over the course of the run.
And the play itself, aside from all the food-related issues? Well it was an odd one, initially intriguing, but strangely paced and saddled with a bizarre subplot about Toxic Killer Cigarettes, a heavy-handed moral metaphor if ever there was one. But it was the use of food that lingered the longest and that I found myself thinking about as I rode home on the Big Ol’ Bus of Loud Shouty Drunks.